Culture Travel Tuesday
Book: South of Superior by Ellen Airgood
Post by Jessica Voigts
I was born in a snowstorm along the shores of Lake Superior, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It snowed for days – sort of an extended hospital stay for my parents and I, as it takes so long to get the roads plowed. Often in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), it will snow more than 300 inches a winter. I grew up eating pasties and smoked fish, and recognizing and loving the wildness and beauty in places. Was I lucky enough to be born with it – and to take this culture wherever I go?
There’s a culture up north – of isolation, familiarity, long hard winters. There’s also a deep knowledge of nature, of humanity, of the Gitchee Gumee (Lake Superior), and how fragile we are in the midst of it. The natural beauty, similar landscape, and sparse population drew in the Finnish and northern European settlers, because it reminded them of home. And, “once a Yooper, always a yooper” (as opposed to the trolls, of the Lower Peninsula). This cultural identity runs strong.
When I picked up the new book South of Superior by Ellen Airgood, the cover drew me in first. It features a checked tablecloth-covered table for four, on a roofed porch of a house. Then I read that the author runs a diner in Grand Marais, Michigan. I was hooked. The story follows a Chicago transplant, Madeline Stone, who moves to the fictional town of McAllaster to help a long-lost relative. In the process, she finds herself, through learning to live in this Finnish community.
It’s a hardscrabble life up there, and the author characterizes the details that make up the fabric of those lives – hunting for food, gathering wood for winter and hoping it will be enough, living off the land, pulling together in times of need, baking Finnish bread, accepting the foibles of others, having to drive 90 miles to the Soo (Saulte Ste. Marie) to get groceries.
While the story follows Madeline and a dozen other people, the real main character is Lake Superior. Always present, sometimes furious, sometimes gentle, she is a presence that compels your attention. This wild beauty, always within reach and hearing, is at once a place of refuge and rebirth, like the ever-present waves. The book is so well-written I never wanted it to end.
Landscape and place such as this digs itself deeply into your psyche, begging for creative outlet. It can be seen in Hemingway’s Two-Hearted River, in the song of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.
Sometimes, to make such a life-changing journey, you just need to be in the right place – and look inside.
The pictures here are copyrighted. The first is used courtesy of Jessie Voigts and the other two are mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. The Amazon link to South of Superior allows you to conveniently purchase the book. You need to know that since A Traveler’s Library is an affiliate, although in costs you no more, we make a few cents on each sale. And we really appreciate your support!